On the 21st April this year, I attempted a Frog Graham Round in the Lakes. Setting out, I knew that this was likely to be one of the toughest things I have ever attempted, yet I also had a little bit of quiet confidence that I could achieve this. I had broken the challenge down into small manageable chunks, I had planned my kit a few days in advance (for once), and I had Aleks to keep me company. I had confidence that Aleks knew what he was doing on the mountains, he was familiar with most of the running route and he was nervous enough in the water to make me feel extremely brave in comparison. The one thing that was worrying me a little was the temperature – with potential lake swimming temperatures of around 8 degrees and a chance of sub-zero on the peaks overnight, this was not likely to be a warm challenge. Having said this – it was just one day of being cold, we knew we’d be able to warm up afterwards and we had a support crew of three extremely kind volunteers, who were on hand should anything start to go pear shaped. I can honestly say that although I had worked this all out before going, I didn’t really know what to expect. It actually seemed pretty simple to me, even though a small voice in the back of my head was telling me not to be so stupid. All that was left to do was get up there, get stuck in and give it a go.
The original plan was to head up to the Lakes straight after work on the Wednesday, giving me an entire day to sleep before starting the challenge at midnight on the Friday morning. However, when it became apparent that there was going to be a need for safety boats, the plans changed slightly. My good friend Steph, who is also a paddler and comes from the Midlands, had once again gone beyond her friend duties and offered to come along to be a safety boat. Thrilled to have her on board, I didn’t think twice about changing my plans and jumping in her car on Thursday afternoon to keep her company on the 4 hour drive up to the lakes. It also meant (despite having already bought my train tickets) there would be no lugging my bags on the train, and meant we would have time to catch up before the challenge got going. I know that Steph would never have asked me to do so either, Steph is the kind of gal who puts anyone and everything before herself, so I just wanted to make sure that anything I could do to show my gratitude, I did it. After all, it takes a special kind of friend to give up a whole weekend, drive all the way to Cumbria, stay up all night paddling across cold lakes with mad people and strangers, and not complain once.
Either way, the result was that at around 9:30pm on Thursday evening, Steph and I rolled in to Keswick and pulled up in Booths car park. Our first challenge, having been on the road for a good few hours, was to find somewhere to go to the loo. We wandered around a little, before I decided to hide in some bushes and go for the first adventure wee of the trip. Steph, a little more civilised and probably not quite as desperate, held on a little longer. It was nearing 10 o’clock by this point, and I knew that even if I could go to sleep, there wasn’t really much point at this stage. Instead, like any good adventurers would, we opted for the pub. The temptation for a beer at this stage was strong, however conscious that I had to stay up all night I went for the sensible option and just had a Pepsi. Yes, a ginormous sugar spike at this late stage in the evening seemed like a much better idea. We stayed in the warmth of the pub for half hour or so, used the facilities and then wandered back to the car. I then faffed around with kit whilst Steph attempted to catch a few winks. I put on a number of different combinations of kit, before deciding to layer a tri suit under running leggings, two thermals and a waterproof. I was warm so I was happy. I would later discover that I was far too warm – but then again considering I was most worried about the cold, that really seems like an achievement. One which was to have horrible consequences in the early hours of the next morning.
Layers decided, I then had a bit of a discussion in my mind about which pack to take. I had a larger Alpkit Gourdon 25 pack – which is brilliant in terms of keeping water out and is very similar to the pack I used for the first half of Rundinavia – or a smaller running pack, which has a lot of handy pockets and drinks holders which can be really useful on the move. I opted for the smaller pack – but had to attach my wetsuit to the outside in an additional drybag. Kit packed, we headed off to Moot Hall, in the centre of Keswick, to meet the rest of the team. We said hello to Aleks and Gaynor (Aleks friend, another incredible runner and support crew member of legend), dipped back in to the pub to use the toilets, and came out to meet Kelvin, our other extraordinarily kind safety boat person. We took a couple of photos to mark the occasion, touched the door and set off at exactly (according to the watch of Gaynor) midnight.
All of a sudden, it was very real, and we ran off into the night (after having to check with Aleks as to which way we would be setting off). The route (very kindly) started with a direct ascent of Skiddaw, all 931 metres of it, and my initial concerns were whether or not I would be scared about running it in total darkness. However, as we plodded on I felt really quite confident. In contrast to last year, I seemed to be comfortable moving at Alek’s pace, and I was surprised at how it felt moving through the darkness on the hill. Normally, when it comes to being out and about in the dark, I am the biggest wimp. I constantly search for signs of danger and listen for sounds of movement – making even the sound of wind rustling through the trees a little terrifying. However, out here on Skiddaw, the darkness seemed to be so relaxing. I felt totally immersed in it and enjoyed the feeling of being completely cut off. As we started to climb the steeper sections towards the top of Skiddaw I began to realise that my training had not prepared me for the hills at all, and that despite the fact I was arguably fitter (in running terms) than ever before, my quad muscles were in for a tough day’s work. Still I pushed on, finding (surprisingly) that I was able to almost keep up with Aleks, and feeling quite proud of myself for doing so. Eventually, we saw the surface beneath our feet change to a rocky scree, and I knew we must be approaching the summit. The only trouble was, this high up, the mountain was covered in clag, so it was ear enough impossible to see where we were going. At this point I was grateful to have Aleks leading the way – though even he had to check the GPS on the phone a couple of times – we were surrounded in cloud to the point where we could barely see our feet, let alone try and make out a path. At this point I think most people would have been faced by fear, this was my first time ascending a mountain in the dark, it was cold, windy, dark and claggy. Any sensible soul would have (quite naturally) spotted the danger and probably let worry set in. But for me this was one of the most liberating experiences. Suddenly, nothing else in the world mattered. I was on a peak in the middle of nowhere, nobody (with the exception of the small team of people on board) knew where we were, what we were doing and why we were there. Survival was the only option and life became beautifully simple. Not least because survival was achievable – meaning that for once my fate lay entirely in my own hands. That probably sounds like a load of cliched nonsense to anyone who has not experienced something similar – but it was a beautiful moment and a feeling I won’t forget in a hurry.
Peak summited (and selfie of two lights in the middle of darkness to prove it) it was time to descend Skiddaw and head on towards the first swim – Bassenthwaite (1km). This sounds simple – just back down the big hill and jump in the water. However, in order to get there, we were in for a bit of a testing time. Well, I was in for a bit of a testing time, and Aleks was about to get a lesson in my (lack of) experience of descending big, very steep hills, in total darkness. The route followed a well-established path from Skiddaw, across a steep edge, and then down off the ridge into the woods. I struggled across here because of my choice to attach a light to my chest, instead of using a head torch. I say my choice, when really, I just couldn’t find my head torch and couldn’t afford to buy one, but regardless, this was a huge technical mistake as I often found it shining up into my eyes as oppose to on the ground in front of me – making an already difficult task even more challenging and 100* more frustrating. I experimented with attaching the light to my hands too, which worked well for a little while, however when the terrain became so steep I had to rely on my hands as well as my feet to keep moving, and as Aleks kindly pointed out by shouting at me to take it off my hand, this became an impossible way of using the light, and it went back on to the chest strap. What followed was a scramble down a gill, which on fresh legs, in the light, I probably would have really enjoyed. However, in the darkness, on tired legs and under pressure to keep up with the mountain goat in front, it was utterly terrifying. I’m not trying to say I didn’t enjoy it, the adrenaline fix was incredible, but to try and claim it didn’t scare me would be a complete lie. I found myself having to use every single muscle in my body to ensure I didn’t go rolling down the hillside, and often found myself slipping several feet into pools of cold water whilst muttering a choice selection of swear words under my breath and praying that that ankle roll hadn’t done any serious damage.
The stress of coming down the gill, combined I think with the muscular effort I’d been putting in to stop myself from falling, had given me really painful cramp in my intercostal muscles, causing me to stop at one point to try and ease the pain. Aleks looked up at me at this point and started to shout about the way I was going down the gill. Unable to breathe, let alone shout back, I ignored him for a few moments, focussing on taking deep breathes and getting rid of the cramp. It has happened before, so I knew I could shake it, however, stood ankle deep in a cold mountain stream, it was a bit of a terrifying moment. With no idea of why I had stopped, Aleks continued to yell from downstream and eventually I shouted back that I was on my way, and started moving again. I told myself that I had to relax I and ate a caffeine gel because I knew I was getting hungry and this was the easiest source of energy to reach. Eventually, we came out of the gill and back on to a path. I questioned why on earth people thought that was a sensible route, only to find out that that was in fact a shortcut which Aleks had decided to take – not an actual part of the suggested route, which no doubt follows a much more sensible path. I decided that fuming at him after having caused him such a slow descent was probably a bad idea, and decided to just keep quiet for the next few km, letting him rant about how we had done the descent ‘so slowly’ and just looking forward to getting in the water, where I felt like I would be the more experienced person, and where I could finally relax.
The ground levelled out as we approached the lake and suddenly a couple of headtorches appeared in the distance highlighting where our safety boats were waiting. We passed a church and graveyard on the approach to the lake shore and Aleks surprised me by announcing he would be choosing that spot to get into his wetsuit. Safe in the knowledge I had a tri suit underneath, I carried on to the lake, finally relaxing from the descent and keen to see some friendly faces. I got changed into my wetsuit, and laid down on the floor to wait for Aleks to emerge from the graveyard. I loosened off the zip and thought about having something to eat, before deciding it was probably better to wait until after the swim. I cooled down a lot whilst I spoke to the safety boaters about how awful the descent had been and I think I said a few times how stupid this whole thing was and how I didn’t know why I was doing it. I think at this stage I knew I wasn’t going to make it. Doubt had set in, and being tired I accepted it all too easily. Not only this, having got so hot on the ascent of Skiddaw, both my warm layers were already damp from sweat, and I wasn’t convinced they would stay dry on the swim either, making me seriously doubt whether I would be able to warm up again. Not good, this early in the day.
I wanted to get back on top of it and had to remind myself to look at the run in segments. I decided to just focus on the segment ahead – the swim across Bassenthwaite. I felt confident in my swimming ability, so I was hoping this part would spur me on a little and give me more confidence. When Aleks finally emerged from the graveyard making scared murmurings about having to get in the lake, I felt some of this confidence come back. I put my pack on my back and followed the rest of the team into the lake. The first thing I noticed, apart from the biting cold, was the fact that the fact it was pitch black didn’t seem to matter. It became a game of survival again. I thought I would worry about possible things sharing the lake with us, but this thought didn’t even cross my mind. One thing that did cross my mind though was that the cold seemed to be getting to me straight away. A few strokes in I realised this may have been due to the fact I hadn’t zipped up my wetsuit. Angry at myself for making such a stupid error, I was once again grateful that Steph was there, swimming over to her boat and getting her to reach down, under my pack to zip it up. After the first few moments of excitement, we settled down into what was a surprisingly long and slow swim. I quickly found that I couldn’t swim well at all with the pack on my back. On my short recce swim across the Trent, this hadn’t been a big issue. However, across Bassenthwaite, in colder temperatures and across a much larger distance, the impact was huge. Front crawl was out of the question, and a slow breast stroke had to be implemented. Needless to say, this didn’t help with the cold, and the fact I now seemed to be getting cramp in all of my limbs slowed me down even further. Aleks, the novice swimmer who up until now has never swam anything like this far in open water, was swimming away from me. At one point, he’d managed to do a full 180 and headed in the opposite direction, only to correct himself and get back in front by quite a long way. I decided I had to stop focussing on him and focus on me. A few times, going across that lake I wanted to call it a day – but there was another voice in my head that wouldn’t let me. I found myself repeating in my head that this wasn’t going to beat me, and I just kept slowly swimming towards the lights in the distance. I started to think about victims of shipwrecks, and how awful it would be to get stranded in the ocean in the dark. I was staring at the lights and questioning whether they would ever get any closer, realising that any sense of distance out here was lost. All I could do was keep my arms and legs moving, all the time repeating that I wouldn’t let it beat me in my head. After what seemed like an age, I saw (and heard lots of swearwords) Aleks walking out of the lake. I was nearly there now. I kept swimming until the bank came into view and realised I was across. I searched for the floor and when I found it I struggled out of the water. We were across. Step two done. And I felt awful.
Changing back out of the wetsuit was pretty much the hardest part of the whole evening. My intercostals were cramping again, my fingers and toes were numb and my will power was slipping. I cracked open an energy bar as I slowly changed and soon enough found myself back in my damp (from sweat not swimming) running kit. A quick loo stop, a trip to the car to pick up the waterproof trousers I had forgotten, and off we went again, the sky slowly changing from black to a deep blue as we did so. From down in the valley a climb was imminent and inevitable, but I was grateful to have about a kilometre on the road first. Running on the road felt familiar and I knew I had a great many miles of road running in my legs. Part of the training was obviously working. However, very soon we were turning off the road and on to another footpath, with a huge hill in front of us. We ambled up the path for a bit, before Aleks decided on yet another shortcut, one which would take us on a more direct route up to the next peak. I looked at the route he was suggesting, and granted it did look like a path, just an extremely steep one, up a scree slope which was (as far as I’m concerned) nearly vertical. Scree (for those who don’t know) is effectively a pile of small bits of irregularly shaped rocks and stones which have been removed from the rock face at the top of a mountain by weathering and erosion. They fall down the side of the mountain to form a slippery, rocky slope. It looks dramatic, and it makes the most beautiful noise when you walk on it, however that is pretty much where the appeal ends. For climbing, it is terrifying, because it moves. All the time. So, after about five hours on the move over unfamiliar terrain, you can imagine the idea of climbing it worried me slightly.
I mentioned to Aleks that it may be better to follow the path, but he simply replied that this is a path and started climbing. So, naturally I did what I always do and followed, actually having quite a bit of fun doing so – based purely on that adrenaline rush that I’ve mentioned before. The higher we got, the higher the adrenaline pushed, and the harder my body was working in an attempt not to fall. Eventually, we reached a point where Aleks got concerned for my safety (and I like to think his safety too) and he went ahead to check the path – whilst I (under strict orders) laid down on the side of the hill out of the wind. Five minutes and an Instagram post later, Aleks came back with bad news, we had to head back down to the original path. Rats. So off we went, a mixture of sliding, scrambling and clinging on to heather, in an attempt to make it back to the perfectly good path we had left not so long ago. It was during this descent that I began to realise how much strain this form of descent was putting on my body, and despite not having done any running in ages, I was really getting tired. I slid down the hill resting on one leg with the other extended in front, and I found that this in itself is really tiring. We reached the bottom twenty minutes or so later, I had ripped the back of my now filthy leggings, and I was starting to get concerned. I let Aleks know that I didn’t think I should go up again if it meant making a descent like that. At the time, I remember thinking that this must mean I am awful at running and that I was failing, however with hindsight, I can see that the running played no part in this. It was my inability to relax when making a descent. My muscles had been almost constantly tensed in anti-falling mode, which meant they were being destroyed much more quickly than normal.
As we washed our wetsuits in the stream we came to the agreement I would keep going to Crummock, 10 miles away, and then decide whether or not to continue. Wetsuits washed and bags repacked, we then pushed on up the path towards the next peak. We climbed higher and higher and soon found ourselves in thick clag and heavy winds. I was grateful here that I picked up some waterproof trousers and found myself putting everything on to try and stay warm. As we neared the top, Aleks stopped to check the route, and I had a sit down on the soft ground. I found myself lowering on to my side, being really grateful for the opportunity to be horizontal for a little while. I expressed my doubt at continuing again at this stage, but nothing was decided and we kept moving. We reached a ridge and started running again, at which point Aleks turned to me and said something which in all honesty I don’t really remember what it was – I just remember that my response led him to say that I was in no state to be on the mountains and that he didn’t feel safe in letting me continue. Five minutes after this I phoned Steph and asked her to come get me, and I began to come to terms with that fact that this was over. I hadn’t quite reached the point where I felt the need to quit, but when I was given the opportunity to do so, I took it gratefully. I wanted to nav down solo, confident that I would be able to using the OS map app, but Aleks refused to let me go alone, meaning that my failure was also his failure, making me feel extremely guilty. We arranged a pick up and began our descent off the mountain, making a further navigation error on the way down due to the fact we weren’t concentrating on the task in hand, instead I was focussing on being a complete failure (as you do when something disappointing like this occurs) and Aleks was busy announcing to social media that the trip had been unsuccessful. Even this small error got to me, adding to my fatigue and it was with aching calves and burning quads that I made the final descent down to the road. Even though I was angry at myself for giving in so early on, this felt like the right decision, and it felt really good to be back in the safety of the car and not out on those unforgiving hills. Sometimes knowing when to stop is the most important decision you will face. The risks of carrying on far outweighed any positives that could come from it and the right decision was made under the circumstances.
I was grumpy for a short while following the challenge, I hate failure. Not failure so much as not fulfilling expectations, which made the whole swallowing the bullet thing kind of hard work. I had had a bit of a cry on the mountain, and needed a nap once we were back in the car. But following this, I actually came to look at the experience quite positively. I failed and I am happy to state that. However, I also climbed Skiddaw for the first time and swam across Bassenthwaite, all in the dark. I had learnt a powerful lesson in not taking short cuts and I knew when to call it quits on something which is turning from manageable into dangerous. Plus, I was going to be in the Lakes with good company for the rest of the weekend, where we did a lot more lake swimming and generally just had a great escape for a few days. I usually dwell on these things negatively for a lot longer – I am definitely guilty of not giving myself credit a lot of the time. But this time was different. I had prepared to fail and so it didn’t come as so much as a disappointment. Then there was the added shocking revelation that I found when I finally got back home. I didn’t regret stopping and I didn’t feel bad about failing the challenge. I had given it a go and I had had a good time, I’d pushed beyond my comfort zone and I actually feel stronger because of it. The only thing I was disappointed about, was having to leave the mountains behind.
But that is the great thing about getting out and doing these things. You learn so much more than you do living in your everyday bubble, and it makes you question everything spending just a few days in the great outdoors.
I’m already looking forward to the next attempt – I’ve worked out where I went wrong this time (the bits in Italics!) – and I know that when I’m back I’ll be happy to be there – regardless of whether or not I make it round.
Though let’s be honest – it would be bloody good to make it.